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When Is Speech Violence and What’s the Real Harm?

The case for censorship takes many forms. The latest uses the science of stress.

Source: photo miguel ugalde/words added/freeimages

Susan was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thankfully, thyroid cancer is almost 100% curable. Her doctor, however, failed to tell her this. Instead, Susan was informed only about the tiny survival rate of anaplastic thyroid cancer, a rare and devastating form of the cancer. Susan went through treatment, but never learned she had papillary thyroid cancer (the curable kind), and would be fine. Although she was cancer-free and should have gone on to live a normal life, she became depressed. She couldn’t concentrate. She withdrew from life, and eventually retreated to her bed where she spent her days waiting for death to take her


This didn’t really happen. Yet something like this is happening on a massive scale on college campuses every day. Faculty and administrators across the country are telling students they will suffer irreparable harm if they engage with ideas they find abhorrent, or even interact in a civil manner with the people who hold those ideas.

Speech may be upsetting, but that doesn’t make it violence. For leaders to assert that speech is violence is not only incorrect, it’s harmful.

To be sure, there is a legitimate body of scientific evidence that chronic perceived stress can cause physical damage, and respected psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett used that evidence in her New York Times essay to make the case that because of the stress that results from certain kinds of speech, sometimes speech is violence. As a result, with Feldman Barrett’s help, now students, faculty, and administrators have a new, “scientific” argument to strengthen their assertion that certain speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos––so long as they are deemed sufficiently illegitimate and substantially harmful––should be prohibited from speaking on college campuses.

But Feldman Barrett fails to consider several mediating factors in the supposed causal chain between words and deleterious physiological effects. Instead, she encourages a mindset that is already doing more damage on campus than anything the self-described internet troll and “supervillain,” Yiannopoulos, has accomplished.

"Hateful speech," according to Feldman Barrett, is so stressful that it should be prohibited because, as she reports, chronic stress can shrink your telomeres. However, she omits an important word. High levels of perceived stress are associated with the shortening of telomeres. Two people can interact with the same circumstances and perceive the stress of that experience differently. If one person tells herself that listening to a speaker is going to be intolerable and harmful, it stands to reason that the experience will be more stressful for her than it will be for the person who tells herself it will be illuminating, or an opportunity to defeat a bad idea. (Or a chance to take a nap...)

Even when people do report perceived stress, it is clear that various factors can intervene in the presumed causal chain from stress to harm. If we believe that stress causes harm, we may in fact suffer more harm from stress, while if we believe that stress is enhancing, we can experience increases in anabolic (“growth”) hormones. Even being compassionate and kind appear to provide a buffer against the health issues that can come with stress.

It has long been understood that how we think about things can influence their physiological impact. The perception of physical pain, the effectiveness of medications, hormonal reactions, how food tastes, and perhaps even longevity are mediated by our thoughts. This is the mechanism of the placebo effect, and the less well known “nocebo effect” (experiencing the known negative side-effects of a medication you are not taking because you believe you are taking it). Similarly, telling people they will suffer can make it more likely that they will. Students who believe that hearing certain words or listening to certain speakers can harm them may, in fact, succumb to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people take literally what Toni Morrison said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature, they may come to believe that “[o]ppressive language does more than represent violence; It is violence.” But it is the belief that words can do harm that causes the harm, not the words, themselves.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt and First Amendment Lawyer Greg Lukianoff observe in their article, Why It's a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence, “[p]eople do not react to the world as it is; they react to the world as they interpret it…” Words do not cause stress. What causes stress is our interpretations. Words are just sounds. Our emotional and biological reactions are predicated on our interpretations of those words, and further, the meaning we ascribe to the fact that a particular person said them.

Changing our interpretations changes both our emotional reactions and our physiological responses. Encouraging students to shift their disempowering and derisive interpretations of speakers whose ideas they loathe could counteract both the purportedly malignant ideas, and whatever harm might otherwise result from the potential stress of listening to them. Instead, invoking science to prove harm gives the “speech is violence” interpretation the appearance of truth. And it gives the corrosive contempt that comes with that interpretation an aura of righteousness.

At Berkeley, Middlebury, and Evergreen, among other campuses across the country, students and others who believe “speech is violence” have engaged in uncivil, intimidating, and even violent behavior. At Middlebury College, students believed they were justified in shouting down Charles Murray because they interpreted him as “dangerous.” At the Evergreen State College, students believed intimidating a professor and his students, and holding administrators hostage was not merely acceptable, but laudable because the professor had sent an email they interpreted as “harmful.” And at Berkeley, students claimed breaking windows, ATMs, and people’s heads was “self-defense,” while they interpreted “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue” as “a violent act.”

When is speech violence? The answer is never. Speech may be upsetting, but that doesn’t make it violence. Speech may be ugly or hateful, but that doesn’t make it violence. Speech may be associated with deleterious physiological effects or even harm, but that still doesn’t make it violence. Speech may even intimidate or threaten violence. That makes it illegal, but it doesn’t make it violence. Equating speech with violence not only robs us of our understanding of ourselves as competent and civil human beings capable of defeating bad ideas with better ones, it gives us license to use physical violence in response to speech––or even in advance, as “self-defense.” For psychologists to assert that speech is violence is not merely incorrect, it’s harmful.

But it’s not violence. ♦

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) where she is the Chief Research Officer to the President and CEO.

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